October 22, 2014: Purple tomatos paint fresh colour on GMO debate
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There are scientists out their modifying our food...genetically. Picture it now: evil lab scientists laughing melodically as they create half-carrots, half-rabbit mutants, put them in plastic containers, and ship them off to Telescope.

Except, that's not quite the real picture. Inside the John Inne's Centre, Dr. Cathie Martin spends her days studying plants, and figuring out ways to make them different colours of the rainbow. She's the group leader at the John Innes Centre as well as a professor at the University of East Anglia.

Inside the John Inne's Centre, Dean Stride walked around with Dr. Cathie Martin.

“Look at that,” Dr. Martin said. “Isn't it beautiful?”

“I used genes that come from the Snap Dragon. They control the colour of this plant,” she said.

Dr. Martin could have experimented with lemons. She could have experimented with blueberries. But she picked tomatoes...because tomatoes are everywhere...dripping every day into the mouths of the frozen pizza eaters and McDonalds customers among us.

“The original reason for working with it was because it's quite easy technologically to do it.But actually, it's a really good target for nutritional improvement because a lot of people eat it. People with quite poor diets eat it. They eat it in ketchup, they eat it in pizza, they eat it in Big Macs,” Martin explained.

So far, the purple tomatoes have not been tested on humans. But they have been tested on mice with high likelihood of developing cancer. These mice lived 40 days longer than usual – about a third of their normal life span.

“We need to test whether these tomato do have the same effects on mice. But let's say the pre-clinical studies are encouraging,” Martin said.

The Green House at the John Inne's Centre is filled to the brim with tomatoes. But most of the tomatoes aren't grown at the John Inne's Centre: they're grown in Canada.

“After the plants have grown, although we can re-harvest the seed, all the other material is autoclaved. It's like putting it in a pressure cooker and destroying it,” Martin said. “So they're destroyed so they're no longer viable.”

I Ontario, where GMO regulations are far less strict, Professor Martin landed a deal with New Energy Farms, where hundreds of her purple tomatoes grow. But all that may change soon. This past June, European Union governments have decided to let member states go their own way when it comes to genetically modified organisms (GMOs), allowing EU nations to either ban the crops or grow them as they see fit. But not everyone's turning pink with pleasure over this. Here in Norwich, there's a March Against Monsanto Group opposed to GMOs on the basis that, if researchers like those at the John Inne's Centre are allowed to grow purple tomatoes, so could anyone.

“I think perhaps the general public, I speak particularly of the UK, but perhaps also Germany and France, have shifted their position so that they realize that GMOs can be a matter of choice,” said Martin.

The independent NGO GM Watch – whose goal is to counter propaganda within the biotech industry – suggested Dr. Martin's findings are “overhyped” and lack sufficient evidence to back them up.

don’t think GM Watch are very fair in terms of their assessment. I don't think the NHS has ever suggested our findings our overhyped. What we're suggesting is that your diet can have a significant impact on your prognosis. I don't think that the NHS would disagree with that at all,” said Martin.

But it hardly matters: Dr. Martin is going to grow her purple tomatoes. And maybe even eat them, too. That means, purple tomatoes could make their way to supermarkets throughout the UK sometime soon. Over 1,000 litres of purple tomato juice from Canada are ready for shipping.

“I would like to see them in a juice that you can drink. Maybe in a Bloody Mary, or a Royal Bloody Mary, because they're purple not, red. First of all, I would like to see them in a juice. And maybe in a salad,” Martin said.

And....if you're not afraid of the potential and unknown side effects of purple tomato smoothies...let's drink to that!

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